Although Russia may be overcoming its objection to the fall of the Assad regime, obstacles could prevent Moscow from achieving its goals in Syria.
On December 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly signaled in a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Moscow might be willing to quietly nudge Syria’s embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad out of power and put a stop to the bloody civil war. This is the second time the Kremlin has given such a signal (the first being in July when the Russian ambassador to France Alexandre Orlov suggested that Assad might step down.) If Russia is truly serious about taking such action, it is worth contemplating the obstacles Moscow will face in forcing Assad to step down.
The Kremlin wants Assad’s exit to occur under very specific conditions that will protect Russian interests, which in regard to Syria are often very misunderstood. Contrary to what many believe, Russia has little geostrategic interests in the country. While many consider the Assad regime to be the last remaining outpost of Russian influence in the region, Moscow’s immediate concerns remain the former Soviet Republics, not the Middle East. Even Russian arms exports to Syria make up only a very small amount. Furthermore, the port of Tartus is only a tiny naval facility that has no significant value to Moscow. The Syrian opposition has also said that Russia will have continued access to the facility even after the fall of the Assad regime, further lessening the need to consider it in the conflict.
Russian (and also Chinese) interest in the Syrian conflict is primarily about stopping the United States and its allies from setting a norm of direct or indirect interference in other states’ domestic affairs. For non-democratic states, such as Russia and China, which have a chronic fear of domestic instability, the prospect of the U.S. and its allies setting such a norm based on a humanitarian rationale is disturbing, lest they themselves become targets in the future.
In order to force Assad to step down and still protect its prime interests in the Syrian crisis, the Kremlin will need to make his exit seem as if it was voluntary and executed within a legal framework. The façade has to show that no official external intervention forced Assad to leave. Moreover, since Assad would have left “voluntarily” under legal terms in such a scenario, Moscow will not want to see him prosecuted under any external authority, partly because authoritarian leaders do not want to set such a precedent that they themselves might have to face in the future. Furthermore, Russia will try to maintain as much influence in Syria as possible after Assad steps down.
Russian objectives, however, run counter to several interests of other parties in the conflict. First, letting Assad leave without prosecuting him would be a serious blow to the International Criminal Court as an institution. The United States and its European allies would be reluctant to guarantee Assad’s legal safety, given the number of atrocities that he has committed.
Second, other regional powers, such as Turkey and Iran, also have significant stakes in the country, which could prevent Russia from achieving its objectives. Tehran, in fact, is desperately fighting to keep much of the Syrian regime intact in order to preserve Iranian influence not only in Syria but also in adjacent Lebanon. But as long as Assad leaves voluntarily and is given legal immunity, Russia might be content with diminished influence in Syria, since Moscow does not have significant material interests in the country.
Last but not least, it is not clear that the Syrian opposition will allow Assad’s quiet and peaceful exit. It is not even clear how one defines the Syrian opposition. The so-called Syrian National Coalition has been formed, but a key question is whether or not the opposition will continue fighting to bring down the entire Syrian government if Assad is allowed to leave quietly.
Even so, there is a slight possibility that Russia has already begun to nudge Assad out. Unconfirmed reports have suggested that Assad might be seeking political asylum in Latin America, suggesting that the Kremlin might have pulled some strings from behind the scene. If the reports are false, time is running out for Moscow. The Syrian regime seems to be facing more and more setbacks every day. It has become so desperate that it has recently gone so far as to cut off internet access in the entire country. As the regime continues to weaken, the Syrian opposition will be less willing to compromise, and the United States and its allies will be more willing to let the civil war resolve itself with a rebel military victory. But whether Russia succeeds in getting its way or not, the end seems to be drawing near for the Assad regime.
Sungtae “Jacky” Park is a M.A. Security Policy Studies candidate at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He has previously published for CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), France 24, and Brandeis International Journal.
Photo courtesy of FreedomHouse via Flickr.